Growing up Heaton

Published 10:16 am Monday, June 20, 2011

Above, Escambia County Blue Devils head football coach Mark Heaton speaks to his players during their jamboree game at Daphne. Below, Heaton started at quarterback for the Demopolis Tigers when he was in high school.|File Photo

Mark Heaton has been a football coach for several years, but unlike some coaches, he did not always dream about walking the sidelines and calling plays. His first calling came as a child when he made the decision that he wanted to be a doctor.

Heaton, 35, spent his younger years growing and maturing in the town of Livingston, Ala., which is on the outskirts of Demopolis.

These are the two places that Heaton considers his hometown when he looks back on where he grew up.

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“I grew up in Texas as a young child,” Heaton said. “When I got to middle school, we moved to Livingston and I went to school in Demopolis, so I consider that where I grew up because that’s mostly what I remember.”

While growing up in Demopolis, Heaton began to take a larger interest in athletics, which would prove to be the motivation that led him to coaching.

The future coach of the Blue Devils would spend all of his middle and high school years playing football, while also being a part of other athletic teams with baseball and track.

Despite being a student-athlete, Heaton did not always want to be a part of athletics, but it eventually became a draw to him.

His first career aspiration was the medical field because of his interest in sciences.

“I originally wanted to be a doctor or do something in the medical field,” Heaton said. “Biology, anatomy and other sciences were always my favorite subjects, so that was something I thought I wanted to do. But, then I fell in love with sports and decided that I wanted to go into athletic training, as a way to be in the medical end of sports. Later on is when I decided I wanted to be a coach, so I switched over to physical education. It was just clear that I wanted to be a football coach.”

When he was away from his sciences and the classroom, Heaton did excel on the athletic field as a quarterback and punter helping the Demopolis Tigers become a top-notch program during his time at the school from 1993-97.

Playing for former Northview Chiefs head coach Cody Keene, Heaton and the Tigers made their final run their best as they pushed all the way to the semifinals of the AHSAA playoffs.

When Heaton looks back, the success of his team is what he remembers more than his individual recognitions.

“There were several individual awards that I received, but honestly those weren’t the things that were important to me,” he said. “Looking back now, the things I remember are the things that we accomplished as a team. We competed for a state championship every year. My senior year, we won our region and made a run all the way to the semifinals before losing to Blount High School, who went on a three-year tear of winning state championships between 1996-98. Being able to be a part of a group of kids that revived a program and put them into that championship-caliber program was important. Doing it with coaches and teammates that did everything the right really impacted my life. It pushed me into my career.”

After he graduated from Demopolis, Heaton had the opportunity to play college football with a chance to play for the Jacksonville State Gamecocks or the West Alabama Tigers. Ultimately, he would end up staying at home and playing for West Alabama in NCAA Division II.

During his time with the Tigers, Heaton was one of the top punters in the Gulf South Conference as well as Division II.

While the individual accomplishments still remained in the background to Heaton, he did take the next steps to becoming an adult.

“There was a big learning curve in the systems and terminology along with the expectations and the work ethic,” Heaton said. “I was taught in high school that there will always be a coach on you about your schooling and your athletic abilities. In college, it was more about them molding you and turning you into a man. It was just a great experience to be there and be able to do it. God gave me a strong work ethic, and that allowed me to perform at the Division II level.”

Once Heaton made the decision that he wanted to become a football coach, he looked to his former high school coach for more guidance.

Heaton said Keene was a person he could always count on to be there, which was the extra push to become a coach for young men.

“My high school and college coaches influenced me,” he said. “Really more or less my high school coach, Cody Keene, who is the former coach at Northview High School, was the man who influenced it. He was my coach, and I coached along side of him for six years before I received a head coaching job. He was a father and brother to me, financial support and a lot of other things as well. He truly cared what I did with my life. He was that way when I was young and even when I was the starting quarterback. He always loved me and tried to make me a better person. That really influenced me to want to give back.”

While being a coach is something that is a part of him, Heaton does not know what he might have done if he hadn’t become a coach — but he knows it would have been working with people.

“I honestly don’t know,” he said. “One of the things about knowing God and trying to be obedient is feeling for certain that where he has is you is where you need to be. I think if I had the opportunity of doing something else, I know it would be with people in some form of capacity.”

Now that he has followed his path, Heaton is a coach and a mentor to more than 60 football players at ECHS, but developing that path took years.

If not for a love of athletics and a strong mentor, people might be saying Dr. Heaton instead of coach Heaton.